A future in flux: what next for the California Department of Education?

October 11, 2018

California's changing landscape, as shown in a classroom in Redwood Elementary School in Oakland.

The next state superintendent of public instruction will face a big challenge: making the case for a bigger role for the California Department of Education.

He will have to reassert the importance of the department, which he will run, after a decade in which its power, responsibilities and resources have diminished. 

He also will have to become the lead advocate for giving school districts what they say the state has failed to provide: more support along with more data and information about what is and isn’t working to improve student achievement.

Whoever is elected next month to succeed termed out Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson — former school administrator Marshall Tuck or Assemblyman Tony Thurmond ­of Richmond — will start with a handicap: an understaffed and underpaid department, as described in a report from the Getting Down To Facts research project issued last month. He will have to convince the next governor and Legislature to give CDE, as the department is commonly called, more money to help districts and county offices of education improve.

That’s the overriding goal of the Local Control Funding Formula, and CDE has both explicit duties and implied authority under the law to be intimately involved. But a study led by Brown University Associate Professor Susan Moffitt, part of the newly published Getting Down to Facts research project, found limitations. “Although the CDE could be an efficient source of instructional support for schools,” Moffitt and co-authors concluded, “it currently is not.”

“The horses aren’t there now; there’s a need to strengthen the department,” said former State Superintendent Bill Honig, who was state superintendent from 1983 to 1993.

The next superintendent will have to be realistic. The state funds only about a fifth of the department’s $278 million budget for operations in Sacramento, with the federal government funding about 70 percent, covering the salaries of many of the roughly 1,500 employees who work in Sacramento.

“There’s a leadership role that CDE could play, but it’s not realistic to rebuild CDE as a full-service agency. That would require hiring lots of new and highly qualified personnel, which in turn would require large new appropriations from the Legislature. The chances that this will happen are vanishingly small,” said David Plank, senior fellow at the nonprofit research organization Policy Analysis for California Education and co-author of a Getting Down to Facts study that examined the emerging state system of assistance for districts.

The mechanics of funding will be another impediment. The department cannot get money from Proposition 98, which defines what portion of the state budget supports K-12 each year. Voters made that a condition of passing the constitutional amendment 30 years ago. Instead, funding for CDE comes through the General Fund budget where “competition will be very extreme” next year, predicted Rick Simpson, a retired adviser to nine Assembly speakers. The next superintendent will face “a tough situation.”

At the same time, two factors may work in the next state superintendent’s favor to reinvigorate the department. One is the election of a new governor who may be more supportive of the department’s role and the need for more a more extensive data system. The second is the impact on CDE’s staffing of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, which took effect this year.

To make headway, the next state superintendent will have to be more persuasive with the new governor than Torlakson was with Gov. Jerry Brown. In his push to shift the power over money and decision-making from Sacramento to local districts under the Local Control Funding Formula, Brown minimized the department’s role. He and administrators in the Department of Finance doubted the department could pivot from a “compliance mentality” — carrying out bureaucratic requirements that the federal government and the Legislature had imposed ­— to an approach of guidance and support that the new funding formula embraces, Simpson said.

Brown also fought proposals to collect more data than the department already gathers, primarily through the CALPADS data system. Because the state’s K-12 data system doesn’t link to preschool or to higher education systems, districts can’t track individual students beyond high school graduation and determine what programs have been effective. To get around those limitations, some districts have created own partnerships like the CORE Districts Data Collaborative.

If Torlakson objected to CDE’s treatment, he didn’t do so publicly. Meanwhile, high-profile efforts like Collaboration in Common, a CDE website to enable California teachers to share curriculum plans and resources, didn’t take off — in part for lack of funding.

Honig said his priorities for the department would be to help teachers teach the state’s new academic standards, train principals and expand the K-12 data capacity to better collect and analyze information. A new state superintendent can pitch for a fresh start and cite the flexibility that Congress has given states with federal funding through the Every Student Succeeds Act. Deputy State Superintendent Glen Price and Moffitt agree that CDE has an opportunity to eliminate redundant reporting and reassign job responsibilities.

Seize that opportunity, Moffitt said in an interview. “Now is the time to make the shift.”

Who’s in charge?

The Legislature has delineated some of the department’s responsibilities. They include:

But on the larger matter of how to provide schools and districts with help they need to improve, its role is not clear and its ability to provide day-to-day support is limited. Educator surveys taken for Getting Down to Facts found that teachers and administrators in schools with high numbers of poor children and English learners didn’t know where to turn for advice on choosing curriculum materials and instructional support — particularly if their county office of education lacked the specific expertise.

Blurring lines of authority is the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a small agency with only a dozen staff. Established by the funding formula law, it operates independently of CDE. That makes three government bodies — CDE, the collaborative and county offices of education ­— “with a shared mission of helping districts but no clear assignment of responsibilities and virtually no structure to the system,” said Plank. Since CDE has no statutory authority to direct the other agencies, he said the next superintendent will have to use the power of persuasion to say, “Let’s work together to ensure that the few resources we have are used in the most effective way.”

David Gordon, Honig’s deputy state superintendent in the late 1980s and now superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education, said he’s encouraged by the basic structure for a statewide system of district support that leaders from the county offices, CDE, the State Board of Education and the collaborative are developing.

The trial run was work earlier this year that county offices did with administrators of 228 districts that were identified, through low ratings on the school dashboard, as needing help, primarily with special education students. County offices did the analyses, while Kristin Wright, director of CDE’s Special Education Division, and her staff provided guidance for student achievement. The focus was on strategies to include special education students in general classrooms, as required by federal and state laws, he said.

One challenge to the system is that the state’s 58 counties run from large and populous to small and rural. Some monitor and provide advice well, others poorly. To strengthen their leadership capability, the state budget included money to establish geographic lead counties to work with smaller counties. The collaborative is identifying county offices to serve as statewide leads with expertise in areas such as special education, English learners and parent engagement.

Gordon said interagency collaboration can replace the department’s need to hire legions of staff. Instead, “small numbers of capable people” can drive district and county work. The department is showing it can collaborate, he said.

Plank said some state agency ultimately has to be responsible for organizing and leading the system of support and to make sure county offices become more effective over time. The logical choice, he said, would be CDE.

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